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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1807

Article abstract: Kleist was one of the most important literary figures in the development of the German Novellen of poetic realism. Although he is better known in Germany than in English-speaking countries, he is usually acknowledged to have been ahead of his time, a forerunner of the modern literature of the grotesque, usually associated with Franz Kafka a century later.

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Early Life

Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist was born on October 18, 1777, in Frankfurt an der Oder, the first son of a Prussian officer, Joachim Friedrich von Kleist, and his second wife, Juliane Ulrike Pannwitz. By the time he was fifteen, both of his parents had died and he, without much enthusiasm, had become a soldier. Although little is known about his childhood, what evidence there is available from letters and other sources indicates that he was bored and unhappy with his life as a soldier; although he was promoted to lieutenant, he resigned from the army in 1799 to enter the University of Frankfurt. While there for three semesters, Kleist threw himself wholeheartedly into his studies of mathematics, physics, and philosophy.

Also while at the university, Kleist met and became engaged to Wilhelmine von Zenge, the daughter of an army officer. His letters from this period suggest that he was an extremely serious young man, introspective and concerned with finding fulfillment in his life by means of intellectual pursuits. Even his love affair with Wilhelmine was characterized by his efforts to make her into a kind of idealized soul mate, an embodiment of intellectual and moral beauty. In letters to his sister and his fiancée, he talks of his “life plan,” a rational pursuit that would prevent him from being merely a puppet at the mercy of fate.

Yet Kleist’s hopes for a purely rational plan of life were crushed in 1801 by what his biographers refer to as his “Kantian crisis.” In a letter to Wilhelmine, he declared that as a result of reading Immanuel Kant all of his faith in rationality as a basis for leading a purposeful life had been destroyed, and his anguish at facing a life governed by chance, fate, and meaninglessness had become almost unbearable. In what some have called an attempt to escape his intellectual torment, Kleist left Frankfurt and began traveling, first to Paris and then to Switzerland, where he became fascinated with ideas learned from Jean-Jacques Rousseau about leading the “natural life.” Because his fiancée refused to go along with his new enthusiasm to lead the simple life of a peasant, their engagement was broken the following year. It was while living in Switzerland that Kleist began writing and thus launched his short-lived career.

Life’s Work

Some of his biographers suggest that Kleist’s literary career began because he was attempting to compensate for his failure to achieve his intellectual goals by succeeding immediately as a writer. While living on a small island on the Lake of Thun in Switzerland, he completed his drama Die Familie Schroffenstein (1803; The Schroffenstein Family, 1916) and began work on Der zerbrochene Krug (1808; The Broken Jug, 1930) and Robert Guiskard (1808; English translation, 1962). Although he began two of his best-known short fictions at this time, “Die Verlobung in St. Domingo” (1811; “The Engagement in Santo Domingo,” 1960) and “Das Erdbeben in Chili” (1807; “The Earthquake in Chile,” 1946), he had been greatly encouraged to continue his work on Robert Guiskard by the high praise for an early fragment of the play received from Christopher Martin Wieland, one of the most respected literary figures in Germany at the time.

For reasons known only to the tormented mind of Kleist, when he returned to Paris he burned the fragment of Robert Guiskard, which Wieland had said was worthy of Sophocles and William Shakespeare. Stung by his own self-imposed sense of failure, he joined Napoleon I’s forces, which were ready for an invasion of England, perhaps hoping, as some biographers suggest, that death in battle would redeem his failure in a glorious way. Shortly thereafter, however, he was sent back to Germany and hospitalized for a nervous breakdown.

After recovering, Kleist obtained a post with the government in the Ministry of Finance. During this time, he continued to write, finishing The Broken Jug, drafting both plays Amphitryon (1807; English translation, 1962) and Penthesilea (1808; English translation, 1959), and beginning his best-known fiction, Die Marquise von O . . . (1810; The Marquise of O . . ., 1960). He suffered, however, from both depression and physical ailments that made it necessary for him to take an indefinite leave from his government job.

While on a trip to Dresden with two friends in January, 1807, Kleist was arrested by French authorities in Berlin on suspicion of being a spy and sent to prison in France. For several months during his imprisonment, he continued to work on his plays, especially Penthesilea. After being cleared and released, Kleist returned to Dresden to enjoy literary success as the author of Amphitryon, which had been published during his incarceration.

His newly raised hopes for a successful literary career seemed dashed when The Broken Jug was poorly received by drama critics and when a literary journal he had begun to edit had to be sold for lack of sufficient subscribers. At first seemingly undeterred by these setbacks, Kleist continued his writing, reconstructing the destroyed Robert Guiskard fragment, finishing The Marquise of O . . . , and beginning another great novella, Michael Kohlhaas (1810; English translation, 1844).

Kleist traveled to Austria in 1809 and attempted to start a patriotic journal in support of Germany’s efforts against Napoleon; however, that too failed, and during this time he once again suffered depression and physical illness. There were even rumors that he had died. Nevertheless, he returned to Dresden, in good health, although penniless, in 1810. His play Das Käthchen von Heilbronn: Oder, Die Feuerprobe (1810; Cathy of Heilbronn: Or, The Trial by Fire, 1927) was staged in Vienna to an approving audience, and he now was making plans to stage Prinz Friedrich von Homburg (1821; The Prince of Homburg, 1875), which he had completed during his travels to Austria. Yet a planned performance of the play in the private theater at the palace of Prince Radziwill was canceled; the publisher of Cathy of Heilbronn refused to honor his promise to publish the work; and the director of the Prussian National Theater refused to allow the play to be staged. Again, Kleist’s hopes for a literary career seemed dashed.

Kleist’s next effort to support himself in the literary world was to become editor of the Berliner Abendblätter, the first daily newspaper to be published in Germany. Although the newspaper was popular with the public, it was somewhat too daring in its political editorials for the Prussian government censors. Although Kleist made strong pleas for freedom of the press, even to Prince Wilhelm, he was ignored. Despite the fact that the newspaper was forbidden from publishing what the government considered radical political ideas, it did publish Kleist’s famous essay on the marionette theater, as well as some of his short fictions. Also during 1810, a second volume of his short fiction was published. The newspaper, however, was doomed to failure; the last issue of the Berliner Abendblätter was published on March 31, 1811.

At this time, Kleist was alone and without means of support; a request for a position with the government was ignored; his family, in a reunion at Frankfurt in October, was reluctant to support him. During this period, he met the young wife of a government official, Henrietta Vogel, who, biographers suggest, was suffering from an incurable illness. Together they made a suicide pact, and on November 21, 1811, near Berlin, Kleist shot Henrietta Vogel and then himself.

Summary

Heinrich von Kleist remains a mysterious figure in the history of literature. Relatively little is known about his tragic life, and his art and ideas have not been discussed in the United States or Great Britain to the extent that they have in Germany. The major focus of the criticism of Kleist’s work has been on its philosophical content, although some studies (mostly in German) have been made on his narrative technique. Despite the fact that critical attention on Kleist has shifted to structural and textual analyses of his Novellen and plays, the primary emphasis is still on the mysterious tension in his work between the nature of consciousness and the nature of external reality.

Kleist is an important German Romantic writer, who represents the significant intellectual shift in the early nineteenth century from an earlier dependence on rational, intellectual assumptions and structures to a new approach to reality based on the individual’s own perception. He is often referred to as a precursor to twentieth century existential thought in his emphasis on the tension between the individual’s desire for meaning and unity and the cold and unresponsive external world.

Bibliography

Ellis, John M. Heinrich von Kleist: Studies in the Character and Meaning of His Writings. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979. Contains detailed analyses of Kleist’s most mature works. Based on these discussions, Ellis provides a summary chapter on the general nature of Kleist’s fiction, primarily its typical themes.

Gearey, John. Heinrich von Kleist: A Study of Tragedy and Anxiety. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1968. A helpful and readable general study of the major short fictions and the plays. According to Geary, the basic tension in Kleist’s works is not simply between rationality and emotion or even self-consciousness and the external world. More basically, his works focus on the general nature of opposition itself.

Heibling, Robert E. The Major Works of Heinrich von Kleist. New York: New Directions, 1975. A general introduction which surveys previous Kleist criticism, provides a brief biographical sketch, and then argues that Kleist’s vision is tragic, not pathological. The predominant theme of Kleist’s works is the conflict between the individual consciousness and the unresponsive external world.

Maass, Joachim. Kleist: A Biography. Translated by Ralph Manheim. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1983. Maass’s workmanlike biography, the first full-length account of Kleist’s life available in English, was first published in German in 1957 and was reissued in a revised version in 1977, the basis for the English translation. Includes brief discussions of Kleist’s major works. Illustrated, with indexes but no notes or bibliography.

McGlathery, James M. Desire’s Sway: The Plays and Stories of Heinrich von Kleist. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1983. The primary focus of this relatively brief and highly documented critical study is the tension in Kleist’s characters between their devotion to lofty ideas and their outbursts of passion—a tension which McGlathery says is typical of comedy.

March, Richard. Heinrich von Kleist. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1954. Perhaps the best introduction to Kleist’s life and art. Although this is only a brief (fifty pages) pamphlet, it provides a concise biographical sketch as well as an informed introduction to the basic themes in Kleist’s work.

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